Bill Shorten is 2014’s big winner in Australian politics. He competed hard from start to finish and the year ended with the ALP polling between 4% and 8% better than the government on a two-party preferred basis, and even more in Victoria and South Australia. One secret of Shorten’s success is, thanks to Labor’s new rules, he is guaranteed the leadership for a full three-year term and need not look over his shoulder. If anybody wants to challenge him for the top job they are going to have to wait until after the next federal election. On the other hand, if he loses in 2016 he will find himself replaced by the Labor caucus in the blink of an eye. As the rapper Eminem would say: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo.”
In Rudd, Gillard and Beyond (2014), Troy Bramston – a Labor historian-advocate – seems taken aback by Shorten’s never-apologise/never-explain approach to the lamentable Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era (2007-13). Shorten could not bring himself to recall even one policy error during those six years. It was all first-class, thanks very much, including the decision of PM Rudd (Mark II) to “return to offshore processing of asylum seekers.” It was good when Rudd earlier abandoned that policy and equally good when he reinstated it.
Recently, Labor’s current immigration spokesmen, Richard Marles, implied that Abbott’s “turning back the boats” strategy played a critical role in terminating irregular maritime arrivals. Shorten soon put a stop to such loose talk. Kevin Rudd ended the people-smuggling trade without resorting to the inhumane practises of John Howard or Tony Abbott. If you do not chose to believe that, tough luck – the Leader of the Opposition is not entering into any further correspondence on the matter. When the ALP swerves in one direction only to veer off in another then that is entirely “correct”, as Shorten explained to Bramston.
The ALP was also correct when it came to economic policy. Rudd might – or might not – have the odd character flaw, but without his fiscal stimulus (or “cash splash”) program in 2008-09, Australia could not have gone on selling extraordinary amounts of iron ore, coal, copper, gold, mineral sands and nickel to the People’s Republic of China at prices well above the long-term average. (I think I have the story right.) China’s economic boom might have come off the boil of late, and Beijing’s demand for our mining resources drastically diminished as a consequence, but Australia does not need any kind of economic belt-tightening.
Further, according to the Shorten gospel, Australia is not in the midst of an economic “emergency”; this is but a ruse on the part of cigar-chomping Treasurer Hockey to hit “workers, parents, carers, patients or commuters” where it hurts. The Budget amounted to an act of inhumanity against the people, relegating them to economic “units unentitled to respect”. Bill Shorten ordered his Senators – in cahoots with the Australian Greens – to block every money-saving initiative by the Coalition, including $5 billion worth of savings foreshadowed by Labor while still in office. Some critics argue that Shorten’s ploy has been irresponsible and hypocritical, but few of them would have predicted the ALP’s sustained resurgence in the polls so soon after the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd fiasco.
The ALP was also correct to have introduced a tax on carbon-dioxide emissions under the prime ministership of Julia Gillard (2010-13), Shorten explains. Some rumours emerged in the aftermath of the September 2013 election about Labor voting with the Coalition to repeal the Clean Energy Act (2011) but, again, this turned out to be more “loose talk”. The ALP stood should-to-shoulder with their Australian Greens allies in the old Senate and voted down Abbott’s legislative initiative, although failed to repeat the feat when the new Senate revoked the Clean Energy Act on July 17, 2014. Some will contend that Shorten’s Labor Party disregarded the Coalition’s mandate to stop the pricing of carbon-dioxide emissions in this country. Obviously there is much truth in this, and yet Shorten behaved no worse than Gillard who introduced it without a mandate from the public in the first place. In fact, it could be argued that Shorten’s position is more transparent (and principled) than Gillard’s, since the general public has been given fair warning: Labor’s return to the government benches in 2016 makes a new tax on carbon-dioxide emissions a given.
In 1974 a couple of old-style leftist academics, Robert Catley and Bruce McFarlane, published From Tweedledum to Tweedledee: The New Labor Government in Australia. Catley and McFarlane, wearing their Marxist ideological blinkers, could not envisage a Labor administration that eschewed nationalising the economy and was – in any meaningful sense – radical. Tell that to the true believers who gathered outside the Sydney Town Hall for Gough Whitlam’s funeral on November 4 this year and jeered the arrivals of John Howard, Tony Abbott and other sundry conservatives. The Whitlam years might not have been radical enough for Catley and McFarlane, but they were plenty radical for bohemian-style socialists. So radical – or, depending on your point of view, so corrupt and incompetent – that the next two Labor leaders, Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke, avoided Whitlam’s crash-through-or-crash legacy like the plague.
No such problem for Bill ‘crash-through-or-crash’ Shorten. He is a Whitlam man through and through. Troy Bramston’s Rudd, Gillard and Beyond is essentially a plea from “sensible Labor” for the Party to forsake the Australian Greens and, after some serious thinking, distance itself from the adventurism and recklessness of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd experiment and recapture the middle ground, à la Bob Hawke. But any process of reflection, remorse and regeneration would likely require two terms in opposition and Bill Shorten, as already noted, only gets one shot. Accordingly, the Leader of the Opposition has run a blinder against the newly elected government, leaving no room for reinvention. His parliamentary Labor team has behaved, perhaps as a consequence, not exactly as if they won the September 7, 2013, election, but not as though they had lost it either. Or, at least, not as if there was any legitimate reason why they should have lost it, apart from some fallout from the Gillard-Rudd fracas. This has involved a great deal of chutzpah on their part – not necessarily a bad thing.
Bill Shorten as Leader of the Opposition contrasts sharply with Kevin Rudd’s strategy in the same position (2006-07). Opposition Leader Rudd could not have been more Tweedledum to PM Howard’s Tweedledee if he tried, even insisting he favoured “turning back the boats”. Few were anticipating the reckless and divisive six years that were in store for us. After all, until he commenced his self-congratulatory victory speech on election night, Rudd presented himself as “sensible Labor” in the form of Howard Lite. The upside of Shorten’s scorched earth campaign against the Coalition is plain to see in the polls; the downside might be that he has set a course record for the first lap in a three-lap race.
Voting Shorten into the prime ministership is not – as it was for Opposition Leader Rudd – a case of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”). We already know what will ensue in a Shorten-led government. Operation Sovereign Borders will be “moderated” resulting in a return of the people-smuggling trade and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poor souls losing their lives on the high seas. Consequential budgetary reform will be postponed until the Crack of Doom, while unprofitable (union-centric) businesses will receive life-preserving transfusions courtesy of the blood of the Australian taxpayer. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation will again be flush with funds and have a free hand to expand its anti-bourgeois bohemian reach to every demographic in the land. There will be no chance of a tome such as Hal G.P. Colebatch’s Australia’s Secret War: How unions sabotaged our troops in World War II (2013) being a co-winner in PM Shorten’s Literary Awards. There will be gay marriage. There will be a turning against Israel (see Julia Gillard’s damning critique of the machinations of the NSW Labor Party in My Story). And last, but by no means least, there will be a “carbon tax” under the government Bill Shorten leads.
Only on the issue of acknowledging and confronting Islamic State terrorism, both here and abroad, could it be argued that Opposition Leader has behaved in a unifying or statesman-like manner. Even then, he is ready to retract all conciliatory gestures at a moment’s notice. In almost the same breath he was expressing shock at Khaled Sharrouf’s seven-year-old son holding aloft the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier, Bill Shorten directed his anger at Tony Abbott for allowing the Aussie IS head-hacker to get through our passport system “under this current government’s watch”. There seems to be no end to the contempt Shorten feels for anybody who exists outside of his political tribe – the word sectarian comes to mind.
Perhaps “sensible Labor” never really recovered from the Whitlam years and the likes of Bill Hayden, Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley are the exceptions that prove the rule. The latter – now the Australian Ambassador to the U.S. – revealed this year that officials in the Obama administration were “intrigued” by Tony Abbott’s foreign policy successes in Asia. We might contrast this with Tanya Plibersek’s disparaging depiction of PM Abbott on the world stage as “Nigel No Friends”. Shorten, for reasons of character as much as ideology, matches perfectly the specifications for modern-day leader of Labor. Shorten is a take-no-prisoners kind of guy and that is exactly what the current Labor tribe wants in a chief – unless it loses the 2016 federal election. Only then might the ALP take Troy Bramston’s advice and consider a little reflection, remorse and regeneration. Only then might another line from Eminem’s Lose Yourself come into play: “Snap back to reality/ Oh there goes gravity”.
Daryl McCann blogs at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au